Nato must focus on the ‘hybrid wars’ being waged on the west

Posted: July 28, 2014 in hybrid wars

By Robin Niblett
FT | July 17, 2014

Foes think the political will for military action has weakened – the west has other strengths

As Europe’s leaders prepare for their summer break, there is one group that has little prospect of hitting the beach this August: those preparing for the Nato summit in September in Cardiff.

With the last of the alliance’s forces about to leave Afghanistan, the summit must address a fundamental question: what exactly is Nato coming home to do?

For many, the Russian President Vladimir Putin has already provided the answer with his annexation of Crimea and destabilisation of Ukraine. Nato should recommit itself to the protection of Europe and confront a revisionist Russia.

If so, how many troops should be deployed to concerned states such as the Baltics and Poland, and for how long? Should Nato build permanent bases in these countries or simply position military equipment there? How regularly should the alliance conduct military exercises in the region? And how much should its members invest in their defence and, especially, in the deployable forces appropriate to meet this new threat?

The answers to these questions will stand as a test of the alliance’s commitment to the collective defence of its members. But these questions also hide the fact that Russia’s strategy in Ukraine presents an entirely new set of challenges, which cannot be deterred or confronted by troops, tanks and aircraft alone.

Russia has adopted a “hybrid” or “non-linear” approach in Ukraine. This involves covert use of special forces and intelligence agents; local proxies; mass disinformation campaigns; intimidation through displays of military strength; and all manner of economic coercion.

Here, Nato leaders need to look beyond their traditional responses and work within the alliance, as well as with partner states such as Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, and other institutions to ensure security against a widening spectrum of threats.

First, at a military level, members and partners must invest in assets such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, command and control, border management, and the capacity to deploy forces rapidly throughout Europe. The ability to understand what is happening and to respond quickly is paramount.

Second, Nato planners need to co-ordinate contingency plans and exercises with national civil agencies, such as with police where civil protests are used as cover for military advances, as in Ukraine. The alliance can also help members to protect national infrastructure, including the resilience of vital cyber systems.

Third, Nato leaders must recognise that security is partly about creating the most resilient and functional states possible. While it can assist with strengthening civilian control of a professional military, it is the EU that is best placed to achieve this. The EU can help fight corruption, promote strong and diversified economies governed by the rule of law, challenge business and media monopolies, and design energy policies that will curb Europe’s dependence on Russian gas imports. So it is essential for Nato to co-ordinate more closely with the EU.

Ensuring security across the full spectrum of risks is also relevant beyond Europe. China is using a hybrid strategy to pursue territorial claims with fishing vessels, drilling platforms and market access playing a bigger role than military assets. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) uses digital propaganda alongside a resource-focused military strategy, seeking to control oil production as much as territory.

The west’s challengers think its political will to engage in military action has weakened – but in fact their “hybrid wars” can play to other western strengths. The most decisive steps in the contest with Moscow over Ukraine may prove to be US economic sanctions; the EU trade and association agreement with Ukraine; and Brussels’ block on the Russian-backed South Stream pipeline project, intended to transport Black Sea oil to central Europe without passing through Ukraine.

Hybrid actions are all the more powerful, however, when backed by the credible threat of force. Nato leaders need to co-ordinate their tools of civilian power with improved military assets to provide a broader defensive armoury against future adversaries. So pity the officials planning for the Cardiff summit. They will have little time to relax.

The writer, director of Chatham House, chaired the June 2014 Nato Policy Experts Report

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